The Top Athletes Looking for an Edge and the Scientists Trying to Stop Them

Behind the scenes there will be a high-tech, high-stakes competition between Olympic athletes who use banned substances and drug testers out to catch them

Olympic organizers plan to conduct 5,000 drug tests—an unprecedented number—during the London Games. (Dan Winters)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

A growing challenge, Howman says, is organized crime. “The underworld is substantially involved in providing and distributing these substances—the profits are extraordinary. With an investment of $100, you can make $1,000 or maybe $100,000. WADA has to make sure that stops.” The testing group recently hired a chief investigations officer to gather intelligence and collaborate with law enforcement agencies. “There have been doping control officers bribed, there have been people working in labs bribed. It’s happening and we need to stop it,” Howman says.

And then there’s the entourage problem. Howman estimates that sports is worth $800 billion annually, and athletes are surrounded and influenced by coaches, trainers, agents and lawyers who stand to profit. Tygart says athletes have been talked out of confessing to illicit drug use by lawyers who would earn more in a lengthy litigation process. “Those within the system who are preying on our athletes need to be held accountable, and we’ll do everything in our power to kick those people out of sport,” Tygart says.

Track standout Michelle Collins was shocked the first time that someone in her inner circle offered her THG, a steroid designed to evade drug tests. The Olympic sprinter and former world champion was told the drug would make her stronger and speed recovery after training. “I was never actually told what it was,” says Collins, who was caught in the Balco scandal for using THG and EPO. She first encountered drugs while making the leap from collegiate to professional competition, an especially vulnerable period in an athlete’s career. “That’s where a lot of athletes get scooped up and grabbed by coaches promising to take them to the next level,” says Collins. “There’s a lot of brainwashing that goes on.” Athletes are convinced that they must dope to be competitive, she says. “I definitely believed that.”

Likewise, Tyler Hamilton, in an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” described receiving his package of performance-enhancing drugs for the first time as a sort of rite of passage, an invitation to the big time.

“Good people make mistakes,” Tygart says, and mentions Collins, who, after initial denials, admitted to doping. Tygart recalls seeing her after her confession. “It was a transformation. Her whole posture and personality was completely changed. It was amazing.” Collins left sports and works as a licensed massage therapist with her own practice near Dallas. Now “very content,” she regrets taking dope. “If I could go back in time, I would say no,” she told me. “I was already talented. I’d made an Olympic team without drugs. I didn’t really need to go there.”

When the Olympics begin this summer, all eyes will focus on the medal counts and podium ceremonies. While those who fall short of a medal may comfort themselves in having fought a good fight, the truth is, winning still matters. In the world of sports, nothing commands greater regard than an Olympic gold medal. Yet the question remains, at what cost? Will that shiny gold medal represent integrity and sportsmanship, or a value system that puts winning ahead of everything else? This is a question that the athletes themselves must answer.

I was skeptical when DeeDee Trotter first told me about her Test Me, I’m Clean! pledge, but I’ve chosen to trust her. I believe Trotter, because I believe that authenticity still exists in sports. (Editor's note: Trotter won the bronze medal in the 400-meter race at the London Olympics, wearing her "Test Me, I'm Clean" wristband) For every medal-stealing fraud like Tyler Hamilton or Marion Jones, there are other athletes who choose to do the right thing. The Olympics still provide a stage for human excellence. It’s not too late to save sports. But it will take athletes like Trotter standing up to the doping culture. The fight against doping is nothing less than a culture war, one that can be won only from within.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus